10thSep. × ’14
By Prisoner Letters
(A): Hey Sean, it’s you buddy (A) here. Would you like to start off by giving a little bit of personal background (how old you are, what growing up was like, what your interests are)?
Sean: I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. Anchorville. It’s gone now. It was “annexed” away, split between two other townships or whatever. I lived in a trailer park surrounded by woods, and when I returned in the late 80’s, all the woods were gone.
It’s as if my childhood was annexed away and chopped down. As if the Matrix occasionally erases our histories, our pasts, everything that anchors us to a place or time.
That area of Michigan is where the idea of “Reagan Democrats” came from- working class communities filled with totally class-unconscious mall zombies. I was a boy scout. Played Baseball. I stuttered and was painfully shy until about 11th grade when I guess I just decided I was tired of living in constant fear of rejection or of others’ opinions. Until then, I worked very hard at being invisible and unnoticed. I lived totally terrified until 11th grade.
Not sure what it was that triggered it, but I ceased giving a shit about what others thought. It was liberating. I gave myself permission to exist. My dad’s job transferred, so after graduation, I moved to Ohio where I ran over a mailbox, totaled my car, and let my parents talk me into joining the Army… for the “discipline.” Translate: “trauma.”
After a 2-year enlistment, my mind was totally mismanaged. The military pumps this false narrative of wolves-at-the-door… Russians or Chinese or Nicaraguans or Cubans or al Qaeda or ISIS, and on and on. Cynical manipulators run EVERYTHING.
After the Army, I felt lost, drifting, purposeless. I didn’t want more education… or some meaningless labor drudgery… I wanted to write, to feel connected to community, to feel I contributed to something meaningful. Instead, I got gas station jobs and college classes that offered senseless intellectual noise.
(A): How long have you been incarcerated and for what?
Sean: I got locked up in 1991. The nephew of the Clerk of Courts kicked in my door and said he was going to kill me. I punched and stabbed him. Because of who he was, police and Prosecutor Kevin Baxter covered up the break-in and claimed I murdered him. This is a really abbreviated explanation of course. A higher court reversed my conviction and ordered a new trial. The trial court refused to do as it was told, and legally, after 23 years and counting, I’m still awaiting the fair trial that was ordered.
I hope to soon have lots of information about this posted at Sean Swain Defense Committee on Facebook and at seanswain.org, for anyone who is interested. At any rate, I passed a polygraph but I’ve spent more of my life locked up than free.
(A): I understand you are a self-described anarchist; how and when did you turn to anarchism?
(Sean): I don’t know that I “turned” to anarchism so much as I “slid” into it.
Before prison, I was an unthinking product of public schools and military mindfucking, totally lost and confused and disconnected and alienated. So, I experienced complete discontent but still didn’t know enough to reject the narrative, the mythology of our dystopic swivelization.
Even after being falsely convicted, I believed by experience to be an anomaly and while I felt the operation of the system was awful, I still did not question its legitimacy. Isn’t that crazy? So, in prison, I worked for reforms and fought in the courts and filed grievances to object to conditions or ill-treatment. A regular Pollyanna. Complete idiot.
And at each foreclosure of redress, my eyes opened a bit more and a bit more. I saw that all those lofty promises in civics classes were utter lies. I was not real to the systems that exploit and oppress.
I saw the State does not operate in good faith. It desires only to keep us all in our assigned seats. So, first came Marx. Communist Manifesto, Das Kapital, revolution. But that answer felt wrong too because the solution was more of the problem. A State, or an exploiter and oppressor, but of a new variety. Same talk, new paint job.
It’s funny too. The State pays a lot of attention to what I read. For instance, it banned “V for Vendetta.” It’s afraid of a comic book. But long before I even read any anarchists, the State had already made me its life-long enemy by making clear that it was an enemy to me.
I didn’t need Emma Goldman to explain to me that the State was a bully and an asshole. I had the bruises and scars to persuade me. I first encountered the ideas of anarchism from Anthony Rayson, South Chicago Zine Distro. In that sense, I followed Anthony, down the rabbit hole.
(A): Through your published writings and general trouble making, the state obviously viewed you as enough of a threat to warrant transfers and solitary confinement. Can you talk about those experiences?
(Sean): I think it was Orson Wells in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti who observed that the State is not capable of distinguishing between a thoughtful critique of its failed program on one hand, and malicious mischief on the other. I find this to be true.
If you “oppose” or “criticize” or “object” to the State’s program in any way, whatever your intellectual and logical reasoning or support, you’re nothing more than a mean-spirited, mischievous monkey throwing poop. You’re a crackpot and a wing-nut and a childish troublemaker kicking over sand-castles for spite. And to make matters worse, the better you might be at articulating your arguments, at deconstructing the logical fallacies at the root of hierarchy, and advocating an alternative- in short, the more capable you are of talking over the fascist officials’ heads- the more you provoke their rage and fear.
You are, after all, engaging the high priests of anti-knowledge. Stupidity and brutality, and blind obedience are virtues, after all.
I have been able to gauge my influence by measuring the intensity of my captors’ violence- because captivity is violence, handcuffs are violence, restraint is violence, solitary is violence, torture is violence.
In 2007, Anthony Rayson published Last Act of the Circus Animals, which I co-wrote with Trowis Washington, and his Each One Teach One interview with me. It took prison officials a year to read them and in 2008, I was tossed in the hole and slated for supermax for misrepresentations of my observations in Each One Teach One. Funny, but I always considered Last Act the most dangerous thing I ever wrote. It was read at “story time” at a collective in Chicago among young anarchists, a group that produced at least one member of Anonymous and one member of the NATO Five. It’s my understanding another copy was read by one of the future organizers of Occupy, and another was found at a squat of the Earth Liberation Front when the FBI raided.
I got mail from readers of Last Act from Britain and Russia. By 2008, it was everywhere. Incredibly dangerous, I thought. But fascists wanted to send me to supermax for innocuous observations in an interview. Ridiculous.
So, starting in 2008, the State began employing a terror campaign to get me to stop writing, which goes to show how stupid and unthinking the State is. Silence is the last thing State terror will produce. Being the target of harassment, shutting up would only make my situation worse. My writing became a method for mobilizing support that could bring pressure to put the State in check. So, in a sense, in attempting to make me stop writing, the State terror provoked me to write even more.
As a result, we have this cycle where the State commits atrocities, I describe them, others empathize and offer support, the State gets scared of the influence of my writings, and the State commits more atrocities to shut me up… and on and on. As a consequence, I now have far more visibility, and influence than my limited imagination deserves.
The creation of seansswain.org in 2009 and its relaunch in 2012, however, triggered a whole new level of fascist fear and loathing. My ideas, the ideas they irrationally fear, were projected into a medium beyond their control. It drove them bonkers because they couldn’t pull the plug on the internet. But it wasn’t until I challenged the legality of their corporate masters, when I wrote about the illegality of outsourcing-for-profit to the JPay Corporation that they decided to pull the plug on me. They confiscated my typewriter and destroyed it, tortured me, terrorized me for a year, and then sent me to Ohio’s supermax for a year of mind-mangling isolation, along with the promise of future continuances by the parole board for pretextual and nonexistent “rule violations” that justify all this repression. I have an attorney challenging all this, but as of now I potentially face dying in prison for a non-crime because I told the truth about the corrupt profiteers holding me captive.
I am the egg they cracked to make an omelet.
The State is under the delusion that it is the authority and I am the subject, that its actions (whatever they are) are legitimate and I am to seek their favor through obedience and subservience. Reality, we are 2 parties at war. War. And I think I’m winning. I will never settle for anything short of their unconditional surrender.
(A): What are the conditions and daily routines of someone in solitary? How did you deal with it to maintain sanity?
(Sean): Solitary confinement is sensory trauma. The CIA wrote the handbook for disassembling the human personality through sensory deprivation. Those strategies are now employed domestically, everywhere, sometimes arbitrarily and capriciously. I know of a guy sent to solitary for bumping into a container of kool-aid and spilling it. Long-term solitary, for a year or years.
A cell contains a bed, a toilet-sink combo, a steel stool, and a steel slab for a desk. Here, we have 3 shelves. At Lucasville, you don’t get a TV. Here, you do. The TV is a selling point used after a major lawsuit, needed to get prisoners to opt to come here rather than Lucasville, thereby keeping this place open. If not for TVs, no one would come here instead of Lucasville, and the place would be 74% empty.
Here, 3 meals are delivered thru a food slot in the door. Five days a week, you have a chance once a day to get cuffed and go to a fiberglass fishbowl with a pull-up bar in it, and stand around for an hour and a half. Or, you can spend an hour “outside”, in a space with 20 foot cement walls, cement floor, and steel grating for a ceiling.
After recreation, you get cuffed and locked into a shower the size of a phone booth. You then return to your cell. You have no direct human interaction.
Prisoners often scream conversations from cell to cell, adding to the discomfort for others like me. Many of the prisoners become nearly infantile in their neediness, reduced by sensory deprivation. The yelling, arguing, pounding, and noise is inescapable and constant, with the deteriorated contributing to the deterioration of all.
Though the daily routine is defined by the absolute absence of activity on stimulation, the internal experience of it produces an opposite reaction. In the midst of all this mundanity is a growing sense of the importance of the mundane. You begin to worry and fret and rehearse and exaggerate the urgency of the smallest things, until the urgency feels totally overwhelming. This is all perfectly symptomatic of deprivation, of course… Of being totally powerless over all the aspects of life… Of a mind grasping for meaning and input.
An example. At mail delivery, the guard handed me a huge pile of mail. My initial response is excitement, followed by a sense of panic that I will never be able to timely respond to all that mail… followed by a sense of impending doom. So, it helps of course if you know that what you experience is symptomatic of the deliberate trauma the State inflicts. If you know, then you can identify it as a symptom, box it up, rationally talk your way through analyzing it.
Rationally, I know that all this mail is good. I know I am locked in a box with days and weeks of free time. I know that nobody demands an answer immediately. I know that this manicky- panicky reaction is symptomatic of this trauma, and I must talk my way through it until the way I feel is rationally connected to my objective reality.
Irrational rage is another predictable symptom. In fact, exaggerated emotional response, period- but rage, for obvious reasons can be particularly problematic.
I experience “rage days.” Days when I would get angry because my pen ran out of ink, and I had to grab another. Or I dropped something. Or my laundry for the week comes back damp. “Rage Days,” the days when minor irritations make you want to destroy shit with a battle axe. But again, if you can identify the experience and analyze it, you detract from its power.
The most important weapon, however, in combating the mental, emotional, and psychological disorganization caused by solitary is purpose. You have to have purpose. You live with purpose, that give life meaning. And what you experience can be understood in relation to your purpose and meaning.
In “Colonizers Corpse,” I argue that the only psychologically healthy orientation in solitary is one of resistance. From this orientation, one sees oneself in an adverse conflict with those inflicting the trauma. Survival is an act of defiance. Maintenance of self is defiance. From this outlook, the purpose in life is to survive (physically, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually) and contribute in whatever way possible to the resistance- the resistance that aims to bring down those who engineer this trauma.
From this, a resister recognizes that the isolation is only physical, but each of us is part of something greater, all contributing, all connected though separated by more geography. This is really the only “sane” approach. To work instead to reconcile oneself to one’s torturers, I think, is pathological at the outset. Self-hating and self-destructive. So, considering this, solitary confinement can only create two things: the mentally ill (the broken who seek to hug their torturers) and the revenge-driven guerrilla who desires the total destruction of the State’s mindfuck machine.
I’m now out of solitary. My status was reduced. But I emerged from it with what sanity I have because of my connections to the outside world, relationships, involvement, engagement… keeping my “head” in the struggle and out of the mundane, immediate deprivation I experienced. While many prisoners use sleep as escape, I found myself going to bed later and getting up earlier in order to tackle more projects. I still have 17 books on my shelf I haven’t had the time to read, even though I routinely get up at 5:30 am and went to bed at 11:00 pm.
I was locked in a room by myself.
I was never alone.
(A): Another thing I’d like to touch on is prison labor. What are the wages and hours of laborers and about what percentage of inmates perform prison labor? What kind of work is being done/products being made in Ohio prisons? Are there any big corporations profiting that the average consumer might have heard of?
(Sean): A general principle necessary for any non-prisoner to understand before talking about prison labor: everything in prison is a fuckin’ lie.
For instance, “security” isn’t really security. It’s really some combination of freeloading and unnecessary provocation. “Disciplinary processes” never instill discipline. “Programming” never yields any programmatic adjustment. “Food service” never makes food.
And generally, prisoner labor is not labor. In Ohio, every level, 1, 2, and 3, prisoners must have a prison job assignment. There are a small number of Ohio Penal Industries jobs or OPI jobs – “factory” jobs. We’ll talk about those in a minute. But apart from those, the vast majority of prisoners at any given prison are assigned jobs in some kind of sanitation with a few dozen more assigned to maintenance crews… and yet, most prisoners are filthy and everything is broken.
Some jobs I had: I worked at recreation. I had to sweep and mop an area between two sets of doors, about five feet by five feet. I did that once a day, about 10:30 am. I did that 5 times a week. I had 2 days off so I wouldn’t get “mop elbow” from all that work. Another job, I had to sweep an emergency stairwell. I did that once every 2 or 3 months. I was assigned to “community service” for more than a year after the program was shut down. Nobody noticed. So, the vast majority of the time, the vast majority of the time, the vast majority of Ohio prisoners are “functionally unemployed,” their official “job status” notwithstanding.
Now, anyone involved in educational programming, their education is their job. You see a lot of prisoners whose official assignment is “student.” You’ve got the Adult Basic Education, and pre-GED classes, which is a cash-cow for federal funding laundered through the Ohio Central School System, which is an office at the prison system’s central headquarters. The prison system gets X dollars per student. Needless to say, the ODRC made a GED mandatory in order to force prisoner drop-outs to enroll in the cash-cow programs. And because most of the drop outs don’t want a GED, and because they have only a short time to serve, those prisoners are just butts in seats and the prison gets to dump the consequent funding into operations budgets.
College, of course, is a scam of another variety. College students sign over their grant money to whatever college is present at the prison. At Mansfield and Richland, it’s Ashland University. At first glance, a prison attending college as a “student” feels like he or she just won the lottery. With Ashland, we’re talking about an academically respected university. Good deal, right? Well, no. For a few reasons.
First, you don’t get the same education in prison as on campus. Tenured professors don’t roll the dice on becoming hostages in the next prison riot, so instructors are low-paid hacks who teach to the tests and grade on a curve. You’re dumber at the end of the course than at the start.
Second, with the certificate you “earn” you can go to any diner in the U.S. And get a cup of coffee for less than a dollar. Of course, you can do that without the certificate. So, the certificate is useless.
End result, you get college credit that does you no good and actually harms you because you cannot take graduate-level courses without the knowledge-base you lack, and you can’t re-take the lower level courses because all your grant money is gone. If you get a job with your prison education, you’ll soon lose it when employees find you lack the necessary knowledge-base.
The university? They get guaranteed funding from the government for every prisoner student, for more than to pay the low-level hack instructor, and in addition they count all the minority enrollment in prison toward the university total, allowing universities like Ashland to keep tuition elevated for white suburban conservative protestants, discouraging the poor and minorities.
The end result, over the long-term, is a slight contribution to the educational imbalance in favor of wealthy whites while sucking up all the poor and minority grand funds. So, universities benefit greatly from exploiting prisoners.
All these “jobs” I described pay peanuts. Level 3 security makes $19 per month; level 2, $21; level 1, $23. Peanuts. This creates a desperate pool of prisoners willing to slave away at Ohio Penal Industries. One of the factories is at Mansfield, producing parts for Honda cars. Honda pays minimum wage for each worker. The State collects that and gives each worker pennies per hour. Prison laborers end up with a maximum of about $90 per month and lungs full of rubber dust, while Honda cuts labor costs drastically and the State runs the prison for free off the surplus it pockets. Win-win-lose.
But, that’s what stagnant state-pay is designed to do. The schedule of pay hasn’t changed since the early 1980s. To have the same spending power as prisoners when state-pay was established, prisoners would be making more than $300 a month, and nobody would destroy their health working for Honda/YUSA.
Just an observation, but the current situation really socks it to so-called free-world folks too. Free-world workers sleep in their cars while prisoners conduct slave labor at slave wages, and free-world folks foot the bill when these former prisoners develop long-term health problems due to the shoddy conditions they worked in.
(A): Regarding conditions of work, isolation, and general daily life, how are inmates fighting back? What strategies and tactics are being used?
Unfortunately, resistance to oppression and exploitation is rare. There are lots of dynamics that militate against it. But when it happens, it typically takes one of two forms. You’ve got the “lone gunman” spontaneous reaction, and you’ve got reformist appeals.
The “lone gunman” is typically a prisoner provoked by staff to an individual act of violence, which always ends badly for the prisoner. Pepper spray, cuffs, beatings, the works. Some guards slobber in anticipation of a chance to brutalize a captive.
Reformist appeals include hunger strikes and attempted work stoppages– tactics that say “We will return to our assigned seats if…” They seek concessions, reforms. Prisoners’ imaginations rarely venture past these kinds of approaches. There was, however, one event that I personally witnessed that broke out of this cycle of failure. But, before I talk about that, it’s important for me to state unequivocally that I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the Army of 12 Monkeys.
The ODRC has accused me of being Monkey #4, one of the founders of the group. I have consistently denied all involvement and my legal council is now preparing a legal challenge in federal court.
Having said that, check this out:
September, 2012. Mansfield Correctional. Out of nowhere, thousands of pages of 12 Monkeys flyers flooded the compound with cool graphics and calls to attack the prison with sabotage- staples in locks, clogging drains, destroying machinery, cutting phone cords, disrupting the OPI factory. There were also manuals, computer generated with explicit instructions on how to organize and how to disrupt the prison. And it happened.
No case worker or unit managers could get in their offices because of the jammed locks. The chow hall plumbing collapsed and after it was replaced at a cost of six figures, someone poured dry cement down the drain and collapsed it again. Staff assaults increased. The number “12” was tagged everywhere. Prisoners smashed windows over areas where staff would get rained on.
People participated, regardless of gang affiliations. Black, white, Hispanic… For all appearances it was apolitical. No argument, no theory. Just action. And everyone joined.
Why? Because it was fun. Catharsis. A way for everyone to channel effectively what they kept bottled up. One of the flyers showed a helicopter thru the sites of a slingshot with a caption : “JUST DO IT.”
This shit was so serious, the FBI was on site within 2 weeks… at a podunk prison in nowhere Ohio.
The reason I contend the 12 Monkeys were a critical disjuncture from the reformist tactics we normally see is that the 12 Monkeys did not have a list of demands, for one. There were no concessions that would normalize relations. The 12 Monkeys sought the collapse of the prison system. Their sole demand, it seems, was for the prison industrial complex to cease to exist. Also, all the promoted actions were totally unmediated. That is, no “leadership” to “direct” the “movement” or centralized shot-calling or reminders to stay nonviolent… It was direct action. War.
As one participant later shared with me, he said, “The 12 Monkeys had two rules, and two rules only. Rule Number One: Fuck shit up. Rule Number Two: Don’t get caught… And not necessarily in that order.”
It was a whole new model of prisoner resistance. A whole new orientation. It even departed from the logic of the riot, in that the 12 Monkeys did not seek to gain control of the prison. They simply wanted it to descent into total disorder.
Four months after it emerged at Mansfield, a weekend riot occurred at Lake Erie Correctional and 40 prisoners were emergency bussed to Mansfield and held in quarantine in the same Special Management Unit housing Mansfield’s accused 12 Monkeys. Since then, 12 Monkey literature has surfaced at several other prisons, but information about events is impossible to confirm because the ODRC denies that anything is happening.
I understand 12 Monkey literature is online at
It’s still a mystery how it got into the prisons, but I guess where there’s a will, there’s a way.
(A): Thanks for the interview, and is there anything else you’d like to say?
To close, I’d like to share a quote from Meir Berliner, who died fighting in resistance against the SS at Treblinka death camp. And in sharing this, I think it is important to note that the survival rate of those who resisted in the death camps was higher than those who cooperated. Something to keep in mind as we consider that our world has been turned into a giant death camp. The quote from Meir Berliner: “When the oppressor give me two options, I always take the third.”
May there always be those who, like Meir Berliner, choose the third option.
They can’t get us all.